Thursday, January 17, 2013

Extremely Expert DM Advice #2 - Picking the Game

So maybe you're starting up with a new group or maybe your existing group has decided to start a new campaign. Either way, after you have players the next big decision is what to play. Here's the main thing to remember:

Pick something that both you and your players like. 

All the rest of this post is going to boil down to that. It seems simple, but people sometimes have a hard time executing it. No matter how much you want to run it, if  no one wants to play it then you're out of luck. We will discuss more below.

Running for a new group: In general I would try to pick something "mainstream" before I tried something "weird". Actually I would throw genre out there first, then talk rules: D&D, Sci-Fi, Superheroes, etc. then talk rules.

Yes I list D&D as a genre. Why? Because for some people RPG=D&D. Now if you're an enlightened member of the online RPG community you may not agree with this, but I've run into it several times personally over the last few decades so I know it exists. They don't play RPG's, they play D&D. They don't like fantasy RPG's, they like D&D. Now the good thing is that if you run D&D they will usually be there and be quite into the game, as long as you're running an edition they like. Oh yeah, there's that too - the I only play D&D type player likely has certain editions (maybe even just one edition) that they play and the others might as well be a different game. If the whole group is like this then consider running the one they like if you like it too, otherwise you're in for a lot of selling: "It's like D&D but..." or "It's like 3rd Edition but ..." is a phrase I have spoken many times.

If you have a group that has played a variety of games then you have more options, but don't get too smug just yet - you may have the opposite problem: getting a group of veteran gamers to agree on how spend their limited budget of free time for gaming. This can be a tremendous challenge. I have a lot of games, and if pressured I could rank them from "would most like to play" to "would least like to play" and my list would probably look very little like yours. For example, I'm not really feeling the need to play in a Top Secret campaign right now*, but some other guy in our new group might have been waiting all his life to play in a Top Secret game, and if in the course of tossing ideas around he sees a chance to get that done he's going to push it hard. The trick is to find something that everyone is interested in enough to commit to the game, even if it's not right at the very top of their list. For many groups this ends up being D&D, the universal solution to this kind of problem. If you want to do something different, you have to weigh the "weird" factor.

Weirdness is in the eye of the beholder, but players and groups have certain thresholds, usually games they've played, games they've heard about from others, games they see on store shelves, and then the weird stuff. Stuff they've never heard of, or heard something about and didn't like, or heard that it was weird. If I tried to get my group to play Mouseguard, they'd look at me like I had grown a second head - it's "weird". Same thing with Fiasco or Reign or a lot of other games they don't know much about. Truthfully I might feel the same way - if I only have time to play one game a week, why spend it on something I know nothing about when there are dozens of games I know I would like to play? If you're planning on running something the group has never heard of keep this in mind.

Beyond these considerations if you're running for an established group there may be some expectations to deal with before launching your game. Have they been playing Pathfinder ? Then your Star Wars Fate game may seem a little light to them.  Have they been playing Savage Worlds and you want to start Champions? Could take some setup. System complexity is something to be aware of if you want to maximize the chances that your game succeeds. Sometime people are ready for a fresh start or a completely new system, but a lot of the time they prefer to stick with something familiar so address that if you're planning a big change.

Besides the rule system there is also the question of setting. Some games have one baked in but others are more generic. Will you be using a published setting? If so are you modifying it? If not are you using some homebrew creation or adapting another known setting to this game system? Get this information out early so players know what they're getting into. When they start asking you about how their characters fit into it then you know you're winning.

Some final considerations:

  • Do your players already own copies of the rules? Do they need to? This can be another barrier to a new game or it can be a point in your favor if everyone already has the books.
  • Maps & minis - will you be using them? Do your players have them? Will you be providing them?
  • Have any of you played or run the game before? Are you going to run a warm-up session to let everyone get a feel for it or are you going to dive right in?
  • Are you going to run any published adventures or campaign material? If your plan was to kick off with  Temple of Elemental Evil and half the party has been through it before then you may have a problem.

*frankly with a brand new 40K codex out that covers two of my armies, I'm not about the subtle sneaking at all - more like blazing gunfire, a charge, and then stomping on the remains of whatever is left. Heck, a Deathwatch campaign might be too subtle for me right now.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Overreaction Wednesday

This is the first of two articles outlining the goals for Next and everything I read in it makes me happy. Here's a particularly choice passage:

This brings us to the second big picture goal. We're going to make an RPG product called Dungeons & Dragons. It will be the game, Dungeons & Dragons, not just a sampler or a game that guides you through making a character and playing a single adventure. You can buy D&D and play a full, tabletop RPG campaign. You will be able to start playing, regardless of experience, and will easily find other products to migrate to if you so desire.

It's worth reading the rest but to me this will be a big win if they can pull it off.

The second article is just as big, and just as important:

The current choices that are present in the game—deity for a cleric, tradition for wizard, and so on—won't appear here. The options built into characters will reflect the iconic D&D expression of the classes. Clerics will turn undead, wield maces, wear heavy armor, and heal characters. Wizards will throw fireball and magic missile. Fighters will wear heavy armor and wield the best weapons. Rogues will be sneaky, good with traps, capable of climbing walls, good at backstabbing or sneak attacks, and otherwise talented with the classic rogue abilities. This is where it is critical that new and returning players see the races and classes in their most iconic form.

The key strengths of the basic rules are that they make the game easy to pick up and play, with fast character creation and classes that default to simple but effective options. Like basic D&D, the rules are more freeform, with DMs encouraged to use the core mechanics to adjudicate corner cases as they come up.

The basic rules will succeed if they support the key concepts of an RPG, namely that you can try anything and that there are no bounds to what is possible. Like basic D&D, the focus rests on the core concept of an RPG, rather than exhaustive rules or character options.

Again, I like everything I see here and the full article goes into more detail and the plan is to add options as parts of an expansion, things like skills and deities for clerics and all the things not found in what is described above.

Overall this typifies the love/hate thing I have with Next: I love the direction they talk about for the game in general, but half of the specifics I see in the surveys and the rule discussions leave me completely dissatisfied. I'm hoping that this latest statement of intent signifies a long term move in the right direction. As with many things, intentions are fine but the execution is what will matter. FOr now at least, they do seem to be getting the intentions right.

Finally and oddly coincidentally, we have a statement of design goals for Shadowrun 5th Edition. You should probably read the whole article if you are interested, but here are the bulletpoints:

  • We like Shadowrun, Fourth Edition (I don't have a strong opinion here but I know the math makes more sense with fixed target numbers)
  • Everything has a price (This should lead to more interesting choices - usually a good thing in an RPG)
  • Players are the heroes (As they should be, though that might not be the right word - how about "protagonists" instead of "heroes")
  • Amp up the cyberpunk (I think it's been in danger of being overshadowed by the magic/supernatural side of things and the punk edge is one of the things that makes this different from Twilight)
  • Make it awesome (Always a good philosophy)
I feel like some of these could be in a DM Advice column. I don't have an attachment to SR4 but I like what I'm seeing here. I am cautiously optimistic that they may finally give me a reason to move on from SR3. Time will tell.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Extremely Expert DM Advice #1 - Players!

To be a DM, you need to run a game. To run a game, you need players. Where do you get them? Rather than getting into a bunch of theoretical stuff I'll talk about my current set of players and how we came together.

  • Lawful Steve* - I've known Lawful Steve since right around high school. We had some mutual friends and wound up in a long-running campaign together. He later became a mainstay in some other games that I either ran or played in. We were even roommates for a while. He's a lifer. I realize some of you may not have a friend you've known since the late 80's that still plays - heck some of you may not have been alive then. Regardless, this is where you start - with good friends who either do play or have expressed some interest in playing "sometime".  
*Because he plays Paladins. Or Superman. When he's not playing Paladins he plays a fighter, usually lawful good, sword and board, tank type fighter. he did play a wizard once - once. In 25 years. It was so shocking the campaign ended soon after.

  • Eclectic Dave* - Dave joined us in the mid 90's during a Mechwarrior campaign and volunteered to be our merc unit's accountant and quartermaster - you don't find guys like that every day! He was a friend of Steve's and has been in almost all of my campaigns since, and we've played together in games run by other people as well. Another lifer, I expect we will be playing together for many years. He was heavily involved in the LFR and 4th edition D&D before I was ready for it and was especially helpful in those early months of getting the first game off the ground. He can also be counted on to actually read the rulebook, an increasingly rare trait. 
*Because he never plays the same character twice. His first 3rd edition D&D character was a halfling wizard, then a human trip-fighter, then a swashbuckler, etc. In my first 4E campaign he played a Half-Elf Bard, in the current one he's playing a Dwarf Warden. Like I said, the only likelihood on his next character is that it will not be the same as his last character.

  • Mastermind Will* - Will was a friend of Steve and Dave's who joined us back around 2000 when we were kicking off my first 3E campaign. He is typically playing in several groups so scheduling can be tricky sometimes but he's solid and always ready to play when he arrives. He usually looks for an "angle" for his character which means he's familiar with the mechanics of the game at a minimum. I'd say he's a lifer too. 
*Because he always has some plan with his character and he is extremely averse to character damage. Anything he suffers better be dealt with in a hurry, but it's better never to suffer it at all. In 3E he played a Cleric in my longest campaign. In 4E he has played a Warlock and a Bow Ranger. I think that speaks for itself.

  • Lady Blacksteel* - I assume the method of acquisition is fairly obvious, but in most nations this will only net you one player at a time. She came around during my final 3E campaign and got tired of watching after a session or two and rolled up a character and the rest is history. She's been a part of every game since. I'd label her a casual lifer - she does it mainly because of me but she does have some interest in it of her own- some of it is the novelty of something she was never exposed to before me, some of it is the social thing, and some of it is the competitive challenge of understanding and contributing to the pary and occasionally showing up other characters. 
*Because I MARRIED her! This changes the nickname options a bit.

  • Barbarian Warlord Jeremy* - Jeremy contacted me through Gamers Seeking Gamers on ENWorld a few years ago - yes those online gamer meetup things work! Well, it did until the site was hacked and destroyed, but it used to work! He was apparently a bigtime 3E player but has been completely consumed with 4E and he and Dave are our resident system experts. I'd say he's a lifer, and probably the most enthusiastic among the group during and between sessions. He's been a part of every 4E game I've run or played in and I don't expect that to change. 
*Because those are the two main characters I've seen him play, both were memorable, and it sounds cool.

  • Jeremy's Friend Marc* - Marc is a friend of Jeremy's who joined us last year. He plays Warcraft and was interested in D&D but had never really played it before so Jeremy talked him into it. He gets into it but he's been struggling with the schedule - family, job, gametime, WoW time - it can be difficult to integrate something new into the routine and that's what he's been trying to do. Not sure if lifer.
*Because he's Jeremy's friend, and his name is Marc, and he's the new guy.He's playing a Dwarf Cleric but this hasn't really been something to make fun of him with - yet.

So what does my little rundown above tell us? Well, find people who have friends. After you run a few games, they may invite their friends. I suppose you could call this "networking" but that sounds very buzzwordy and it's not an active process - I'm not selling my game to people and asking them to invite their friends, I just do my thing and this stuff comes up naturally. "Hey I have a friend who's interested, can they come watch next time" - "sure". We tend to do a lot more breeze-shooting than monster shooting the first hour of a session so it's easy for someone to get acquainted before we get into the abbreviations, lingo, and monty python references.

What if you don't have friends that play? 

Don't forget family! Kids are great but they take years to grow into it. Extended family is a potential resource too - cousins, nephews, nieces - a gamer could be lurking nearby.

I have not tried the game store posting myself, but one of my friends that ran games used to do it and had about a 25% keep rate. By that I mean if he had 4 people interested only around 1 of them would show, play, and be someone you'd want to hang around for a game. That's not terrible I suppose, but it does disrupt the flow of a normal session when you have a totally new person walk-on to the game. There's everything from personality to hygiene to play style to mechanical familiarity to consider, and that's why I've found the friend-of-a-friend to work better- they have a "guide" who can give them the rundown of the players and the game and they have a friend at the table when it comes time to play. Still, if you're starting from scratch this is definitely an option.

Another option is the online posting for players. Gamers Seeking Gamers was the one I liked best. It's dead for now but it did work. I put up what games I was running, what our usual schedule was, and what zip code I was in, and over the course of a year or so I got 3 hits. One was Jeremy, one was a girl who showed up about 4 times then disappeared forever, and one was a guy seemed to be somewhat interested in the game and quite a bit more interested if we were 420-friendly (look it up if you're curious) which is not really my thing. So while I don't know that it's any better than a store posting it is easy to update and easy to access at weird times of the day. There are various rpg meetup and gamer meetup and locator groups but none of them seem to have the size that the ENWorld one did - plus I was running a lot of D&D and that's a pretty big crossroads for D&D. Another suggestion: the main online forums for the game of your choice - it couldn't hurt.

As far as playing online I'm not much help - I've tried it twice and both game fell through before anything got going, which soured me on the whole thing. Plus I have enough to manage juggling the face to face games. I know there are people making it work though.

In a way this can be the most difficult part of being a DM - starting! Especially starting cold. I've been fortunate enough to be part of an active group of players for the last 30 years, with some turnover but in general with more new players joining our extended circle of friends than leaving it. Not everyone has that good fortune. For those I will say two things:

1) Find a local store. Go there. Play stuff, even non-RPG's (40K, Magic, etc). This will lead to meeting other people who play games and might plug you in to an existing group or give you some candidates to start your own.

2) Keep trying - it's worth it.

That's all for now!